Physicists have a grand theory that describes how tiny particles interact to form all the stuff we see in the universe — everything from planets to toasters to human beings.
But there is one particle predicted by this theory that has never been detected in experiments. It's called the Higgs boson. Scientists are dying to know if it really exists — and now researchers are closer to finding out than ever before.
To hear the latest results from the search, physicists recently crammed into an auditorium at CERN, the world's largest particle physics lab, near Geneva. Someone wrote on Twitter, "Room full to the rafters. People would hang from the lamps if the security guards would let them."
The Higgs boson is a famous subatomic particle first theorized to exist back in the mid-1960s. It's a key part of some beautiful mathematics that would explain a fundamental mystery: why things have mass.
If the Higgs exists, scientists should now be able to find it — using a brand new machine at CERN called the Large Hadron Collider. The collider sends bits of atoms racing around a 17-mile circular track. They smash together and spew out subatomic rubble that scientists can study for signs of the Higgs.
The jargon came fast and furious on Tuesday as researchers showed off colorful PowerPoint slides packed with graphs and numbers and equations. The bottom line: Two different experiments saw some things that might be traces of the Higgs ... or maybe not.
CERN's director-general, a physicist named Rolf-Dieter Heuer, described them as "intriguing hints."
"But please be prudent. We have not found it yet. We have not excluded it yet," cautioned Heuer. "Stay tuned for next year." Researchers believe they'll be able to make a more definitive statement on the Higgs in 2012.
These new data do narrow the search. Drew Baden, a physicist at the University of Maryland, says they're running out of places where the Higgs could be hiding.
It reminds him of the old joke about how when you find something, it's always in the last place you look. But in this case, he says, it's no sure thing that the Higgs is there to find — so the suspense is growing.
Baden compares the Higgs search to looking for your favorite pair of socks. Imagine you rummage through your dresser and finally find them in the last possible drawer. That probably wouldn't surprise you.
But what if your dresser had 100 drawers and you've already looked through 99 of them — how would you feel about your chances of finding the socks? "I mean, I'd be suspicious that it's not there," says Baden.
That's sort of the situation that the Higgs-searchers are in. "So far, we've opened up a lot of these drawers," Baden says. "And so far, we haven't seen it."
If the Higgs is not found in the next year or so, he says, scientists may have to totally rethink their ideas about the inner workings of the universe.